I’m just getting around to reading the text of President Obama’s big speech on Afghanistan, and I’m glad to see he addressed the Vietnam analogy.
He made three points to debunk the comparison:
There are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we’re better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now — and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance — would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.
Unfortunately, two of his arguments are off point. He says a “coalition … recognizes the legitimacy of our action,” and he says al Qaeda, a proven threat to America’s security, is in play. Those points speak to justness of our cause, but they don’t actually address the crux of the Vietnam analogy which is about battle conditions on the ground.
To that point, President Obama made one rejoinder: “Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.” On that score, Obama is absolutely right. Don't you wonder why al Qaeda is sequestered off in the mountains and the Taliban relies on bullying fragile villages, while neither group—unlike North Vietnam and their VC support in the South—has a rebel network in the cities? (I’ve always found it ironic that Al Qaeda means “The Base” because really, they don’t seem to have one.)
But while President Obama’s analysis of the Taliban’s limp approval rating is correct, his plan for taking them on is backwards. If the extremists’ weakness is that they aren’t popular, let’s exploit that. The reason the Taliban isn’t popular is because they rely on brute force and intimidation. (The reason al Qaeda isn’t popular is because they’re totally nuts.)
Rather than sending tens of thousands of troops to out-bully the Taliban, let’s spend those billions of dollars ($30 billion for Obama’s surge) on infrastructure, economic development—building schools and hospitals.
A civic and economic surge will highlight the very thing that makes the Taliban and Qaeda unpopular: All they’ve got to offer is a sort of religious martial law. If we offer economic hope while the Taliban occasionally comes out of the hinterlands to attack and blow stuff up, their status will continue to decline.
The popular insurgency will be the one that’s building things, not blowing them up.